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Recovery from harrowing injury nearly complete for Mats Zuccarello

AP Photo/Winslow Townson

BOSTON -- New York Rangers forward Mats Zuccarello tried to downplay the fact that he was back on the ice Thursday for the first time since suffering a fractured skull and brain contusion during the Stanley Cup playoffs last spring.

The organization's upper management, coaching staff and players were thrilled to see Zuccarello zipping around the ice in his first preseason game of the year, against the Boston Bruins at TD Garden.

Even though the Bruins won 4-3 in a shootout, the final score was an afterthought for the Rangers, because having Zuccarello in the lineup, and healthy in time for the 2015-16 season, was well worth the trip to Boston.

"It's great," Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton said. "The way he got hurt last year, and what a big part of our team he is, to see him back out there and 100 percent is great. He's a huge part of our team. He's so competitive, and he has great hockey sense. He's a great guy, and his teammates love him. We're all happy that he's back and doing his thing."

During Game 5 of the Rangers' first-round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, a puck off the stick of teammate Ryan McDonagh struck Zuccarello in the head. He was unable to speak for several days after the injury, which made many wonder if he would ever play again. Even he questioned his future.

Zuccarello missed the remainder of the postseason and the Rangers lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference finals without his services.

However, after Zuccarello regained his speech and functions, he began skating on his own and mixed in a few brief practices with the team. If the Rangers had advanced to the Stanley Cup finals, he might have played despite his injuries.

"It's hard to say," Gorton said. "We really never got to that point. In our minds, as a team, we were concerned for him, his health and getting back for this year."

Even though it was only a preseason game, Zuccarello proved Thursday he's 100 percent ready for the upcoming season. He scored a goal, added an assist and was involved in the play all over the ice.

"I didn't think about it once, so that was great," he said.

After the game he admitted his decision-making and timing were a bit off, but that's understandable given the situation. He said it was nice to be back on the ice and promised his game would improve.

"It's a good start for him," Gorton said. "Welcome back, and now it's time to go back to work. Honestly, it's just great for us to see him out there and we know he's going to make his plays, do his thing and good for him."

Due to Zuccarello's injuries, this offseason was different than his normal routine. After the Rangers lost in the conference finals, he stopped skating and focused on his health.

"I was gone for a while, so I had to kind of start over and build myself up musclewise," he said. "I feel strong, but my conditioning is going to get better as we move on here. In the beginning it was a slow process, but the last three or four weeks before I got back to New York I was working really hard and felt good."

With a healthy outlook on his game and the team's upcoming season, his expectations are the same as always.

"Be the best I can be and help the team win games," he said. "Do what I can do, try and play physical, get into battles and hopefully create some chances and play solid D."

Rangers coach Alain Vigneault was all smiles after Thursday's loss when asked about Zuccarello's return.

"It was obviously great to see, not just from a standpoint of him being healthy, but him being healthy and playing the way he did," Vigneault said. "I'm sure he was very pleased, and his teammates were also very pleased, so it was a good first game for him."

Standing in the visitors locker room at TD Garden, dripping with sweat, Zuccarello is focused on this season and not what happened last spring.

"First game is in the books, and I'm looking forward to the next one," he said.